The second in a three-part series. Read the first one here.
Milret, 45, first participated in an agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant as a teenager. Her mother took her there. Held at Kanyakumari under the banner of the National Fish Workers’ Union (NFWU) on May 1, 1989, it brought together about 10,000 people protesting a proposal to draw water for the reactors from the nearby Pechiparai reservoir, and to discharge waste water into the sea. Eventually, Milret married and settled in Idinthakarai, which remains the epicentre of the protests. And she has become one of prime faces of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE).
Despite the determined decades-long struggle against the Koodankulam plant, the government and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) announced that it was commissioned (began operations) to attain criticality on July 13. This is supposed to lead to the eventual generation of the long-promised power from this plant.
On my recent visit to Idinthakarai, Milret and I sat facing the Selva Vinayagar temple, our backs to the St Lourdes church. I asked what she thinks about the undemocratic commissioning of the plant and, before that, the May 6, 2013 Supreme Court judgement that went against the protest movement.
"We are even more confident of our movement now," she said, her hand clutching her mobile phone intently. She and many others believe that the commissioning itself is a farce, that the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) is not yet ready to become operational due to faulty equipment and major technical issues.
Sometimes it is easy to get sentimental about a people's struggle that has kindled so many other movements and shows no signs of abating in face of bad news. But every time I go to Koodankulam, the people show me something much more than easy sentiment.
How is one to analyze such a powerful, long and sustained movement, something that has been in motion in different forms, across generations, for almost a quarter of a century? What drives a people to be so determined? How do you judge such a movement's success? I have often wondered how the diverse communities of Koodankulam, each with their own complex and often violent histories and differences, have stood united for so long against the might of a powerful State.
And remained dignified and non-violent despite suffering violence, unfair allegations and lies.
I keep trying to make sense of it all through the many voices I’ve heard during my several visits there these last few months.
Pushparayan Victoria, one of the leaders of the PMANE, told me once that “when it affects people's lives and livelihoods like this, there is no limit to their strength.” He certainly understands the wellsprings of the impulse to protest. This priest-turned-activist used to secretly read Periyar and Karl Marx during his education at the church. He has been working with the fishworkers (“Not 'fisherfolk',” he corrected me the first time we spoke) for some decades now.
Starting in early 1994, he worked in different village parishes in Tamil Nadu – Thoothukudi, Keezhavaippar, Uvari, Nagalaapuram – for about six years. He left the church in 2000, disillusioned with its work among the community and its insistence on redundant rituals. His closest friends discouraged such a drastic strep but Rayan, as most people call him, never doubted his decision.
Even while attached to the church, he’d been a part of various people’s struggles along the Gulf of Mannar, conducting village workshops, distributing pamphlets, undertaking cultural awareness campaigns, agitations, cycle rallies and street campaigns for movements against sand mining, corporate fisheries, the Sterlite agitation and many others.
For the past few years he has been focused on the people's movement against KKNPP. It is ironic that 13 years after leaving the church as a priest, he has been sheltered in the parish priest's house in Idinthakarai since March 2012. He and some others are now confined to this village after the government slapped bizarre cases against them restricting their movement.
Rayan is a pragmatic man. He also has a gift for mobilising people. About the only thing that disturbs him and chips away at his hope is the disdain with which PMANE's questions have been ignored – both the scientific community and the government label them as 'illiterate', 'anti-national' and 'foreign funded'.
I am frequently nonplussed and enraged by the response, online and offline, of our liberated educated class to Koodankulam and other people's movements – when they call these struggles and the people struggling for their rights 'uneducated', 'brainwashed', 'anti-progress', etc. And sometimes, those few who agree with its goals blame the movement for 'romanticizing' the issues or the people involved in them.
But back in the villages around Koodankulam when I pose this question – how do you deal with people calling you illiterate? – I don’t detect even a hint of anger or frustration. T. Raj Leon, one of the protestors, asks me plainly and calmly, "Alright, so if we are illiterate and uneducated, then why don't these people come and educate us? Answer our valid technical and other questions we’ve raised?"
We sit on the dusty steps outside the church, Raj Leon and I, under a board on which he daily writes the number of days since the movement gathered force on August 13, 2011 and took a new turn. The board will read 714 today.
He opens up easily and tells me how he has been a fishworker since he was born. He learnt the ways of the sea like landlocked children learn to play hide and seek. When he went to attend a certificate course at the Central Institute for Fisheries, Nautical and Engineering Training (CIFNET) in Chennai, he was amused at what was passed off as marine 'education' there. “Even our English class taught Rip Van Winkle, a story I knew by heart already from my school days," he chuckles.
Raj Leon never loses his calm, even at moments of panic like after September 10, 2012, when the police brutalized the village. They ransacked the church, broke idols of Mother Mary and even urinated inside the church. On my first visit, he had sat me down and explained the reasons why this nuclear plant just does not make sense. Never the sentimentalist, he asked very pointedly, “They claim it to be cheap and clean? Well, first, it is neither clean nor safe – it is nuclear energy! So let's keep that aside. Cheap? On what basis?”
He explained how even after the plant would start running – and it can only run for a maximum of 60 years – one cannot even expect a basic return on the capital investment. When I asked him what that meant, he consulted the others sitting next to him and elaborated on how the cost of the plant had been constantly increasing since it was planned in 1997, and this is when it's not even generated any power yet.
To understand this in context, one must bear in mind that the project cost for Unit 1 and 2 has increased from a reported Rs 6,000 crore in 1998 to an estimated 15,500 crore in 2008. Today, we have no clear idea of what the final costs are going to be. Some estimates put it at over Rs 17,000 crore for Units 1 and 2 alone.
Raj Leon smiled and said, “So much of taxpayers’ money has been used for 15 years, and for what?”
If all this sounds rhetorical, perhaps we should keep in mind that the whole project cost, after the proposed units 3 and 4 are also constructed, is currently pegged at Rs 40,000 crore – or at Rs 20 crore per MW of electricity.
This does not make any economic sense and is unrealistic if the price of power for consumers, as the NPCIL claims, is going to be a meagre Rs 3 per unit. Such pricing is going to be possible only after massive subsidies at the taxpayers’ cost again.
Raj Leon told me with a dramatic flourish, “And even after the plant shuts down, you have to maintain the project for managing the waste and the expenditure thereon – and this has to be done for 48,000 years!” He is referring to the safeguarding of radioactive waste and other radioactive substances generated in the process of running the plant.
He says in a sarcastic tone, “The government can’t sustain itself for even five years, how can they manage to guarantee taking care of something as dangerous as this for so long? Have they factored in these costs? How can they still call it 'cheap'?”
Milret has believed this movement to be her destiny ever since that first protest meeting in Kanyakumari in 1989. The police were as brutal then as they are now. That day 24 years ago, they opened fire, injured many and killed one person. The national media was more focused on the Indo-Soviet deal that Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev had signed to start the Koodankulam plant – barely two years after the Chernobyl disaster. The agitation slipped from the eyes of the camera and never featured in urban memories.
For the local administration of Tirunelveli district, Milret is a 'criminal' and an 'anti-national'. For supporters of the movement, she is a blazing beacon of hope.
During one PMANE agitation on April 3, 2013, the protestors went into the sea. I was also there. By now the roads all around Koodankulam were densely barricaded and so movement on land was restricted. The protestors also couldn't move about freely due to the long list of criminal cases against them.
But when PMANE discovered the use of substandard Russian equipment in KKNPP, they decided to defy police orders and enter the village of Kootapulli as a mark of protest. And so they headed to where they feel at home – the sea.
Hundreds of fibre boats were filled with people shouting slogans. As we passed the nuclear plant on our right, its two bulbous domes staring ominously at us, we could see the shore dotted with the police. They were holding shields in the sun as if the non-violent protestors would fire at them, even though they were the ones with the guns.
The protestors sang Tamil songs in tones not particularly pleasant on the ears. Milret’s was one of the most cheered voices. With a fist raised and a scarf around her head for the harsh sun, she shouted, “Vendaam, vendaam, anu ulai vendaam! (No, no, we say no to nuclear energy!)”
At that moment the police in the distance seemed to have a lost look on their faces, like castaways on an island.
What about safety and liability? Emergency measures? Radiation levels? And the safe handling of the nuclear waste? When the villagers ask these simple but important questions, they are dismissed as alarmist. Many have caricatured their knowledge.
But someone like Amartya Sen, the economics Nobel laureate, in his latest book An Uncertain Glory that he has co-authored with Jean Dréze, raises these same very valid concerns. Highlighting the lack of transparency of the nuclear establishment, Sen and Dréze state clearly that “reliable facts” about the various nuclear establishment institutions "are hard to ascertain". They go on to mention the alarm bells that even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been sounding when it says that, "There is enough evidence to suggest that the Indian civilian nuclear establishments are in fact particularly unsafe."
Then there is the plant's faulty location. Raj Leon elaborates: "The Department of Atomic Energy chose a location for the plant which they thought was a homogenous rock, a very hard [charnokite] rock. But studies say that this hard rock, which is around 1 km in diameter, is crisscrossed by soft [calcareous] rocks, which they didn't expect when they started digging." He says this “makes the basement weak and can lead to liquefaction, or even sinking of the rock."
He mentions Dr R Ramesh, a medical doctor who supports the movement and who has written several pamphlets and a book highlighting these concerns. Ramesh told the villagers that “when they [NPCIL] discovered their mistake, they did cement grouting and concluded that they 'expect' the rock to behave 'homogenously'."
The geological information cited by Ramesh and Raj Leon can be easily found in several reports in the public domain. After months of extensive research, the PMANE submitted these reports in early 2012 to the KKNPP authorities and their so-called experts for discussion, but there has been no response till date.
Raj Leon and his comrades such as V Rajalingam and Peter Milton offer me a whole list of other environmental hazards of building the plant at the current location, such as the plant's close proximity to human habitations. Or how rock melt extrusions prove that the area has a history of and is susceptible to volcanic eruptions.
It's important to remember the context that the present clearance process, which mandates an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study for governmental projects like nuclear plants, industries etc., was formally introduced only in 1994. By then, the Koodankulam units 1 and 2 had already received environmental clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on May 9, 1989. So, in effect, the first two units don't even have an official sanction as per today's standard.
The 1989 approval also did not need to involve a public hearing where the protestors could have voiced their concerns. Once again, this is now mandatory. Not to say that it also isn't a farce even today. The later public hearing held for Units 3 and 4 after several postponements on June 2, 2007, was conducted in the most autocratic manner. It did not follow MoEF directives such as having the EIA report available to the public in Tamil or answering the public's questions – not even the ones people submitted in writing.
No wonder Raj Leon and the other protestors have no faith in the government's farcical environmental assessment. They are in august company here. Two years ago, the then-MoEF Minister Jairam Ramesh spoke to reporters at the CII-Green Business Centre and confessed that, “The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) in the current form is a bit of a joke as it is self-assessment by the company."
A dreadful fact that might cost millions of lives around the KKNPP and elsewhere. Moreover, a new study out this month by Geetanjoy Sahu, assistant professor, Centre for Science, Technology and Society, School of Habitat Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) raises serious problems with the efficacy of State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs).
It also finds not much hope in the National Environmental Protection Authority or the National Environment Assessment and Monitoring Authority proposed by the MoEF. Built on RTI information, the study talks of political interference, lack of adequate resources and staff as well as general mismanagement. It mentions facts such as one of the SPCB chairperson had no higher education than class X.
And the villagers who have to live by the decisions of such people are to be considered 'uneducated'?
But radiation and the environment are concerns that find selective relevance in our country, torn as it is with horrendous inequalities. Just a few months ago, the healthy and rational people of central Delhi – residents of Amrita Sher-Gil Marg, Jor Bagh, Prithvi Raj Road and Aurangzeb Road – called for a halt to the erection of mobile phone towers in their area. They got their wish promptly.
A newspaper report stated that the fear of radiation had led the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) to demand this move. They didn't even have to go to any court. The report does not carry names of these protestors, unlike the PMANE where names are named and, as a result, the local administration plays constant psychological warfare with non-violent protestors, threatening them with arrests and restricting their movement. The brave people of Idinthakarai do not work on the sly, and could not if they wanted to.
So what are we to learn from this? That radiation affects skins in upper-class, upper-caste, posh Delhi areas more than the fishworkers on the southeastern tip of this country?
The whole issue of India's power crisis needs a thorough assessment and investigation. I often ask the Koodankulam protestors about this power crisis – particularly acute in Tamil Nadu where some places have as much as 16 hours of power cuts per day – that is the Indian State's rationale to run these nuclear reactors. They all unanimously point out the sheer mismanagement of power in this country.
Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze also elaborate on the complete lack of accountability and planning in the power sector. They reason that the sector's “limited reach and capacity” is due to “the practice of tolerating and underwriting the huge losses accrued by state power utilities, which are to a great extent from badly reasoned electricity subsidies, poor collection of electricity charges, power theft, transmission losses and other costs.”
This poor planning, and the preferential treatment to certain segments of the population for political or other reasons, is not even something that happens outside the public eye. The hungry industrial sector, rampant and unplanned urbanization and the jugaad mentality have undoubtedly led to our power crisis.
Xavier Ammal has also been around since the Kanyakumari meeting in 1989. Still fiery in her 50s, she rolls beedis as she talks, her pitch defying the loud waves crashing on the rocks nearby. She is the same woman whose heart-wrenching picture – of her fallen and splayed on the beach after being chased by the police, even as they lathi charge a protest in the background – has already become iconic.
On that day, September 9, 2012, the protestors courted drowning by steadily walking into the sea. Ammal told me how she was duped by the police that day and forced into the back of a police van that allegedly drove her and four other women around different towns in Tamil Nadu for two whole days, without a remand or warrant, before they were thrown into jail in Madurai. Today, she is out on a conditional bail.
She tells me how she used to once ignore Y David, one of the founders of the struggle. She and most other villagers ignored David and the others who came regularly from places like Madurai to talk to them about the dangers of nuclear energy. Even seven years ago, she says, not all of them paid that much attention to SP Udayakumar, the man who now is leading the struggle and who was even then travelling tirelessly from village to village and talking about the hazards KKNPP posed to their lives and livelihoods.
Only after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011 did the people really wake up. The people of Koodankulam and Idinthakarai congregated outside the church and decided to call leaders like SP Udayakumar, S Mugilan and Pushparayan to come and repeat everything they’d been saying all these years. “We sent some young men from the village to go fetch Udayakumar from his house in Nagercoil,” says Xavier Ammal. After that, everything changed.
The villages organized themselves into groups and elected their own leaders who devise strategy collectively for the movement, spread awareness among nearby villages, issue press releases, share important developments and information with everyone and negotiate on their behalf.
On August 13, 2011 the protests reorganized themselves and began with renewed vigour. And Raj Leon began to keep count of each day on his board outside the church.
For the past two years every household has given about one-tenth of their monthly earnings to the movement: funds that are used for activities like organizing agitations and traveling to various cities to share their protest with the rest of the country.
The Congress MP from Puducherry and Minister of State for the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances, V Narayanswamy claimed last year – without any proof till date – that these protestors are foreign-funded. A general rumour spread that the Koodankulam movement was being funded by Americans; the impression is now stuck in the popular imagination. Rayan once laughed at this and said, "Of course, everyone will think so."
He then proceeded to narrate with his usual dry wit a story from the 1980s, how every Sunday in church many adults and children would pray for the redemption of communist Russia. "Look what our prayers did!" he joked.
That the Indo-US nuclear deal has been the push for all the manic nuclearisation in India is, on the other hand, not a misconception or misinformation. For example, on the eve of Joe Biden's recent visit to India this month The Hindu Business Line reported that “the US company Westinghouse said that 'building on the success at Kudankulam' it looked forward to building 6,000 MW of nuclear power projects in Gujarat.”
A nuclear power plant with alarming technical flaws and little to no disaster preparedness has just claimed to have gone critical, but the national media is still more focused on whatever deals and sweet talk a foreign leader might offer us.
Santiagu, an old man with a gentle toothless smile, had memories of one of the earliest protests against the Koodankulam plant. November, 1988. Several hundred people protesting Gorbachev's visit to India.
Eventually, the Soviet Union disintegrated, Rajiv Gandhi died, and the plant was put on hold. Then the same deal was revived by HD Deve Gowda in 1997 with a hefty loan proposed from Russia. The Indo-US nuclear deal a decade later put spurs on the project and the plant reportedly went critical in July 2013.
Twenty five years later, Santiagu still sat under the main protest pandal protesting against the plant which was now fully constructed. He could barely walk but he came every morning and sat till late evening, encouraging and supporting everyone who came to discuss and protest. He died on June 16, 2013.
Every afternoon, a swarm of children descends on the main pandal. On their way home from school, they stop to read books at the small library set up by the activists outside the church – children's story books in Tamil and English as well as books on environmental and nuclear issues meant for adults. The piles of books keep increasing thanks to generous supporters and sympathisers of the movement. Sometimes the kids watch a film on environmental issues along with the grown-ups. Some just play under the shade.
I once asked Udayakumar about the role of children in this movement. Udayakumar is the leader of the PMANE and someone who, along with his brave and patient wife Meera, ran a school in Nagercoil city before he took up the cause. He pointed me to Gandhi – someone he is mightily inspired by – and his focus on involving children in the freedom struggle and how important they are to the shaping of history. With such political and social exposure, Udayakumar told me with pride, “they are quite likely to be the future leaders of this country.”
I think of 12-year-old Harishan* who studies in class VII-B at the Bishop Roche School of Idinthakarai, as he noted in my diary. After school he spends hours devouring newspapers and magazines in the backyard of the parish priest's house. This house is always filled with visitors – supporters, activists, environmentalists, well-wishers, college students from across the country, and the media. The backyard, where Harishan hangs out, is a curious place where a rooster roams around and feels free to crow at unusual hours of the day. Glasses of tea lie scattered. Harishan loves to read books too and educates me on the need for a sustainable environment.
He once offered me a bar of chocolate that he was holding tightly in his hand. It was his birthday. He had refused to celebrate it since his struggle was still on.
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